Toward the end of his remarks at Austin FC’s groundbreaking event for its new stadium on Monday, the team’s new investor and newly-dubbed “Minister of Culture,” Matthew McConaughey, had some poignant words for all the Austinites in the audience.
“While Austin is a growing metropolis, while we are now inviting an international sport that's played around the globe, we've got a chance and a responsibility here to keep our village values.” He added that those “village values,” combined with the stadium experience currently being conceived, will result in something “quintessentially Austin.”
He noted that the challenge was on “all of us” to do that. Though he meant everyone who calls Austin home, he was speaking to an audience of three key constituencies at the groundbreaking helping to, as Austin FC might put it, “grow the legend.”
A front office mixing longtime Austin residents with relative newcomers — including Austin FC CEO Anthony Precourt — who fell in love with the city and are now learning its quirks and rhythms as they build the franchise’s foundations.
A City Council who partnered with the team after an exhaustive public process that Austin residents know all too well to be quintessentially Austin.
And a burgeoning fan group who their founder likens to a “startup” in its organization and in applying a diverse range of specialties to inspire a city that’s soccer-savvy and building allegiance to a team that won’t take the field for another 18 months.
The location: The city's "second downtown," with beer
The new stadium is located near the Domain complex of residences, retail stores and offices, in what’s increasingly referred to as the city’s second downtown. Though 10 miles from downtown Austin proper, it’s only three miles from the geographic center of the larger Austin metro area. It’s home to a number of tech companies that have fueled Austin’s impressive growth. Indeed, for example, has a branded office building almost kitty-corner from the stadium, and Vrbo’s gleaming new headquarters is in the Domain.
It’s also home to a number of craft breweries that help define Austin. Local favorites like Austin Beerworks, Circle, Adelbert’s, and 4th Tap are within a mile radius of the stadium; some of the local breweries and customers know it as “the neighbeerhood.”
"A huge part of Austin FC's success is going to be the relationships that they build with their local community, and a huge part of any local community is their craft breweries,” observed Dan Wiersema, a longtime Austin soccer fan and founder of The Free Beer Movement. “The neighbeerhood is going to be a crucial part of the game day vibe for the club. The way the stadium is situated is going to necessitate the plethora of taprooms into the larger stadium district. It's essentially like multiple beer gardens circling the stadium, and I can't think of a better way to drink in local soccer than a march from a brewery to the match."
It’ll take some time for the skeleton of the stadium to add to the evolving Domain skyline, but in one of Austin FC’s first post-groundbreaking moves, they’ve installed a construction cam — viewable on the team’s website, where fans can peek in on progress for the $242 million stadium, currently set to open in April 2021.
Austin FC President Andy Loughnane said that the first phase of construction, now underway, will involve a lot of moving dirt and some excavation, so while evidence of an actual stadium won’t be immediately visible for construction cam viewers, they will be able to see the 24-acre stadium site transformed in the coming months.
The next milestones: A training center, a sporting director, and Academy matches
The club is also anticipating some additional milestones on the horizon. Loughnane confirmed that they’ll announce the location of the training facility, to be known as the St. David’s Performance Center as part of the club’s partnership with the health care provider, in the next 30 to 60 days.
They’re also looking at the sporting director position to complement Josh Wolff, who was announced as the team’s first head coach in July, as the player acquisition process ramps up.
Though Loughnane says there’s not a specific timetable for a hire, they’re currently in discussions with candidates and candidates’ agents, and an announcement is likely in late 2019 or the first quarter of 2020. Austin FC bucked the convention of hiring a general manager or sporting director first and then hiring a head coach; Loughnane notes that their enthusiasm for Wolff made that a necessity.
“We believe that Josh is a rising talent,” And he was high on our list of prioritized candidates. And the timing to hire Josh worked very well for us. We also believe that Josh is a talent magnet for a sporting director. We know Josh is an A-plus character, we know Josh is a strong leader of men, and we know Josh has a significant amount of upside.”
There are no specific timetables for player acquisition, but Loughnane and Precourt have both said they’ll literally look around the globe for talent, with some of their international roster spots potentially going to players in this hemisphere.
“We know that there's a great opportunity, from a proximity perspective, but also from a marketplace demographic perspective, that we want to explore players who made presently be playing in Latin America or are from Latin America,” Loughnane said. “I believe all MLS clubs are essentially taking the same approach. But given our proximity, and again, given our marketplace makeup, we're more than likely to pursue the Latin American market perhaps stronger than others. It's all about availability. And, ultimately, our sporting director will have the chance to build out a roster using the latest information possible.”
There are already players wearing the Austin FC crest — namely, the U-14 team led by Austin FC Academy general manager Tyson Wahl. The Fighting Verde played their first match last weekend (a 4-1 loss to San Antonio FC's U-14s), and they'll play their first home match Saturday, against the FC Dallas U-14 squad, at the Austin private school where they train.
The fans: 37,000 season ticket deposits and counting
Perhaps the biggest ongoing story for Austin FC is the enthusiasm of Austin soccer fans, manifest in the record-setting season ticket deposit numbers which continue to ratchet upward. Loughnane says they’ve now gone above the 37,000 mark. Though it’s been a steady climb upward from the 30,000-deposit mark they reached within the first two days of availability, the investors' announcement in August (which included McConaughey) and the groundbreaking event generated buzz and subsequent spikes in deposit activity.
The conversion of season ticket deposits to season tickets will begin before the end of 2019, in what Loughnane called a “multi-month” process from there. “The club is very pleased with the ratio of seats per deposit,” Loughnane noted. “The volume of deposits, and the ratio of seats per deposit, has been right in line with expectations. And we are in a very good position as we aim towards the goal of selling out for our inaugural season and beyond.”
They’re looking at Austin Anthem, the first official supporters’ group for the club, to anchor stadium attendance. The group, now with 2,000 members, has been instrumental in other ways beside jumping on the season ticket deposit opportunity.
Supporters gave club officials input on stadium features and amenities in a focus group gathering earlier in the year, and representatives from the SG have given input on two uniform designs that the club expects to release in late 2020 — judiciously timed for holiday gift buyers.
“Austin FC wouldn't have been possible without the incredible hard work and support of Austin Anthem,” Loughnane said. “And it is our hope, and I would imagine it is a hope shared by Austin Anthem, that the supporters’ section is sold out in 2021, and all years beyond.”
Austin Anthem has been raising visibility for soccer in Austin in recent months, and growing its own brand in the process. It hosted a series of Women’s World Cup watch parties over the summer that were well-attended — no small feat given Austin’s propensity for social soccer watching — and had a contingent march in Austin’s annual Pride Parade last month. And some of them are already test-driving chants and a small but developing murga (brass band) at University of Texas women's soccer matches, in a partnership the SG created with the team.
“I think Austin Anthem's rapid growth, high recognition within soccer culture locally and increasingly internationally, and within the community in general comes from a few things,” said founder Josh Babetski. “We have a diverse, talented, and passionate leadership team representing all parts of Austin, with backgrounds and interests. This is an intentional 'big tent' philosophy which has resulted in a highly inclusive and representational membership base.”
He added that the leadership team “thinks about the SG like founders think about a start-up — with many of the same professional skillsets and tools, asking, how we deliver the best experience for our city and our members.”
“It was a soccer city already on the tipping point,” Babetski added. “We just were here to give it the push.”